Equal Rights and Free Love- The Remarkable Story of the First Female U.S. Presidential Candidate
The 19th amendment to the United States Constitution, which was the result of many decades of hard work and lobbying from tireless suffragists who battled on both the state and national fronts, prohibits any US citizen from being denied the right to vote on the basis of their sex. Nearly a half century before this Constitutional amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920, activist Victoria Claflin Woodhull decided to run for the “nation’s highest office”, announcing her candidacy on April 2, 1871.
Woodhull began life as Victoria Claflin in 1838 as the seventh of ten children born to Roxanna and Reuben Claflin. Despite what you might think from her later successes, including becoming the first female stock broker on Wall Street, the young Victoria only had three years of formal education, occurring from age eight to eleven.
She might have received more schooling had her father not intentionally burned down his own gristmill in order to collect on the insurance policy he had recently taken out on the building. It should also be mentioned here that her father’s primary profession was as a con-artist and snake-oil salesman. His insurance fraud attempt was the last straw and town residents subsequently, quite literally, ran him out of town. As for his wife and children, so eager were the townspeople to get rid of the rest of the Claflins, they raised money for the family so they could afford a trip somewhere- anywhere- else.
After this, Victoria and her nearly as notable youngest sister, Tennessee Claflin, began helping to support the family as “magnetic healers,” clairvoyants, and fortune tellers.
Unfortunately for Victoria, at the age of 14 one Dr. Canning Woodhull came into her life. Two months after her 15th birthday, her parents married her off to that 28 year old gentlemen in November of 1853.
While, contrary to popular belief, such unions at so young an age have never really been the norm, there were certainly many exceptions. Case in point: in situations regarding a relatively poor girl with few prospects where the man in question is reasonably well-off or has a particularly bright future ahead, this sort of thing was not unheard of. After all, back then, very unfortunately, the vast majority of women’s financial futures could only be secured via a husband. So finding a well educated man to marry a poor, uneducated girl must have seemed a great match for ensuring her a reasonably comfortable life.
It wasn’t, at least not with Dr. Canning.
Victoria’s new husband proved to be an alcoholic and a womanizer, often leaving his family to live in squalor while he saved the financial fruits of his labor for himself and his many mistresses. Over the course of the next decade, the couple had two children, a severely mentally challenged son and a daughter.
In a time when a woman divorcing a man for any reason was scandalous to the extreme and generally left the woman in question without a good way to support herself, Victoria bucked her first major societal trend and divorced Canning after eleven years of marriage. Despite that she despised her ex-husband, for reasons unclear today, she chose to keep his surname for the rest of her life, even after she married twice more in her lifetime.
As for the first of those additional marriages, two years after her divorce, she married Civil War veteran Colonel James Blood of Missouri. Blood encouraged his new wife’s free-thinking and independence. He also helped her in her fight for equal rights regardless of sex or race, and even supported Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee, in their desire to move to New York City together in 1868.
New York proved to be a turning point in Victoria and Tennessee’s lives. The sisters continued their work as mediums and alternative medicine peddlers, managing to attract the attention of the enormously wealthy Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt was very interested in spiritualism at the time, hoping to connect with his deceased mother. He also had a general distrust of doctors, so the two lady’s methods of tending to the sick similarly appealed to him.
It isn’t clear exactly what the extent of the relationship between the sisters and Vanderbilt was, though it is thought that Tennessee became a serious love interest of his.
Whatever the case, impressed with the pair’s intelligence and drive, Vanderbilt became a silent backer to the sisters’ in their founding of Woodhull, Claflin & Company, Bankers and Brokers. The stock brokerage firm opened in early 1870, making the sisters the first female stock brokers on Wall Street.
The business thrived and the pair were nicknamed the “The Queens of Finance” in the press. This was a much more flattering nickname than Hetty Green got around the same time for her investing savvy (investing her own fortune, rather than working as a stock broker)- “The Witch of Wall Street“.
The sister’s financial success in investing was enough that only a few months after they started their company, they were able to found Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly newspaper. Beyond focusing on controversial ideas like promoting sex education, their publication also committed the triple taboo of the day of speaking out in support of equal rights and fair treatment regardless of race, sexual orientation, or sex. They even advocated for the legalization of prostitution, of which it is estimated there were tens of thousands of in New York alone at the time. This was group society legally and, at least publicly, shunned, despite that a not insignificant percentage of the male half of the country frequently took advantage of their services privately.
Woodhull would also use the Weekly for furthering her own candidacy for the office of United States President, though she made her intentions known for such a presidential run in a letter published not in her Weekly, but in the New York Herald on April 2, 1871. In her letter to said publication, she wrote,
I claim the right to speak for the unenfranchised woman of the country and announce myself as a candidate for the presidency.
(Some today contest that she can’t really be considered the first woman to run for president as she was only 34 during her campaign and wouldn’t have turned 35 until six months after the presidential inauguration, making her legally ineligible for the office in the interim. However, while there were countless contemporary articles published about her presidential run, not a single one seems to have ever mentioned her age as a reason she shouldn’t be president. Ignoring such an age-law in government was not unprecedented. For instance, famed politician Henry Clay was not yet the required age of 30 when he became a U.S. Senator. Despite this, nobody, not even his opponents who could have used this fact to derail his election bid, ever used this against him, or even seemed to notice at all.)
In any event, Woodhull’s presidential campaign platform included women’s suffrage, the shortening of the workday and workweek (see: Why is the Typical Work Day Eight Hours Long and How the Five Day Work Week Became Popular), and, most controversially of all, “free love.”
The basic idea on the latter point was that women, in her view, were nothing more than sexual slaves, of little interest to many men of her age outside of how they could use them for sex and procreation. Many women didn’t even have much of a say in who they ultimately married in the first place. She stated of this in a speech on November 20, 1871 entitled The Principles of Social Freedom,
It is high time that your sisters and daughters should no longer be led to the altar like sheep to the shambles. The sexual relation must be rescued from this insidious form of slavery…
She also noted,
To woman, by nature, belongs the right of sexual determination. When the instinct is aroused in her, then and then only should commerce follow. When woman rises from sexual slavery to sexual freedom, into the ownership and control of her sexual organs, and man is obliged to respect this freedom, then will this instinct become pure and holy; then will woman be raised from the iniquity and morbidness in which she now wallows for existence, and the intensity and glory of her creative functions be increased a hundred-fold…
She felt that the key mechanism for this revolution was not just voting power, but a woman’s right to be able to earn a living in what profession she chooses, thereby freeing her of her dependence on men.
Women must rise from their position as ministers to the passions of men to be their equals. Their entire system of education must be changed. They must be trained like men, [to be] permanent and independent individuals, and not their mere appendages or adjuncts, with them forming but one member of society. They must be the companions of men from choice, never from necessity.
She also quipped that women could easily, and quickly, achieve equal rights via a very simple plan:
Let women issue a declaration of independence sexually, and absolutely refuse to cohabit with men until they are acknowledged as equals in everything, and the victory would be won in a single week…
On this note, at the core of her argument was a widespread societal double-standard. She lamented that while men of the age were largely free to discretely have mistresses or seek out prostitutes as desired without significant consequence in most cases- which she was completely fine with- a woman doing the same would be socially vilified and become an outcast, if not face much harsher consequences.
That said, Woodhull herself would long claim to be a monogamist, though we might today call her a serial monogamist, and indeed advocated for monogamy in many of her writings and speeches. She simply thought monogamy was unrealistic for most marriages of the day that were full of “miseries” and that women, not just men, should have the right to not be monogamous if they wanted without threat of being ostracized by society.
Thus, as a major part of her presidential platform, she advocated for a woman’s right to have children, marry, divorce, and sleep with who they will when they will and, just as importantly, have the socially acceptable right to not sleep with even their husbands if they chose not to on a given day-
I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.
Given the provocative nature of her publication and her eloquent and compelling writing and speaking style, Woodhull quickly gained quite a following. Notably, a few months before she announced she’d be running for president, she even managed to secure herself an invitation to speak in front of the House Judiciary Committee, which she did on January 11, 1871, thanks to a friendship with Congressman Benjamin Butler from Massachusetts. At the time, no other woman in American history had ever testified in front of that governing body.
Before the committee, she put forth the argument that women were already legally allowed to vote thanks to the 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution, which, among other things, state,
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude…
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States…
She also likened women’s plight at the time to that of Americans before the American Revolution, particularly with regards to “taxation without representation”. This was an argument she would later repeat in her famous Lincoln Hall speech on February 16, 1871,
I and others of my sex find ourselves controlled by a form of government in the inauguration of which we had no voice, and in whose administration we are denied the right to participate, though we are a large part of the people of this country. Was George III’s rule, which he endeavored to exercise over our fathers, less clearly an assumed rule than is this to which we are subjected? He exercised it over them without their consent and against their wish and will, and naturally they rebelled. Do men of the United States assume and exercise any less arbitrary rule over us than that was? No, not one whit the less. To be sure his cabinet were few, while they are many; but the principle is the same; in both cases the inherent elemental right to self-government is equally overridden by the assumption of power. But the authority King George’s Parliament exercised was even more consistent than this is which they assume and exercise: his government made no pretension to emanation from the people.
When our fathers launched “Taxation without representation is tyranny” against King George, were they consistent? Certainly. Were they justified? Yes… Men fashioned a government based on their own enunciation of principles: that taxation without representation is tyranny; and that all just government exists by the consent of the governed. Proceeding upon these axioms, they formed a Constitution declaring all persons to be citizens, that one of the rights of a citizen is the right to vote, and that no power within the nation shall either make or enforce laws interfering with the citizen’s rights. And yet men deny women the first and greatest of all the rights of citizenship, the right to vote…
Even though she failed to convince the committee, her oratory skills and rising influence brought significant national attention to suffrage, landing her on the radar of several prominent suffragettes, including Susan B. Anthony, who postponed the start of the National Woman Suffrage Association Convention to listen to Woodhull speak.
While the suffragists had strong reservations about Woodhull’s background and the widespread perception that she was an inherently immoral individual due to her views on sex and divorce, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, at least initially (not so much later), felt this should be overlooked, writing in a letter dated April 15, 1871,
If all “they say” is true, Mrs. Woodhull is better than nine tenths of our Fathers, Husbands, sons, and woman’s purity amounts to little in the regeneration of the race as long as man is vile. Now if our good men will only trouble themselves as much about the purity of their own sex, as they do about ours, if they will make one moral code for men and women, we shall have a nobler type of manhood and womanhood in another generation than the world has yet seen…
When our soldiers went to fight the battles of freedom of the late war, did they stop to inquire into the antecedents of everybody by their side?
The war would never have been finished if they had…
Now although I believe Mrs. Woodhull to be a grand woman, I should be glad to have her work for her own enfranchisement if she were not. I think she would become a better woman by thus working and by assuming all the rights, privileges, and amenities of an American citizen.
With her star rising, Woodhull created the Equal Rights Party, which subsequently nominated her as their presidential candidate in May of 1872 and then ratified her nomination in June. They nominated the former slave, and one of the truly remarkable individuals in American history, Frederick Douglass, as her vice president. (Their platform was not just equal rights for women, but for all, and they hoped in nominating Douglass they could unite those fighting for black American rights and those fighting for women’s rights.)
Unfortunately for them, other elements of Woodhull’s platform were a little too controversial, and Douglass never responded to the nomination, instead campaigning for Ulysses S. Grant.
While Woodhull was well aware she had no chance of being elected in the first place, that was not the point of making the attempt. Her real goal was to establish a national platform with which to spread her then controversial ideas.
Unfortunately for Woodhull, her campaign took something of a turn for the worse due to a tussle with famed advocate of evolution, as well as black and Chinese American rights, clergyman Henry Ward Beecher. (Today his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, is perhaps far more famous, but in his time, he was a very well-known and popular minister throughout the country.)
Beecher advocated for many of the same controversial ideas as Woodhull. However, it was Woodhull’s thoughts on “free love,” particularly that a woman should be allowed to divorce a man, if she so chooses, and sleep with who she wants, that saw Beecher likening her to the devil and railing against her from the pulpit.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast wood likewise depict Woodhull as the devil in a Harper’s Weekly cartoon. The woman in said cartoon is depicted as the wife of an abusive drunk. But in response to Satan/Woodhull’s seeming encouragement of the woman to divorce her husband, the woman states, “Get thee behind me, (Mrs.) Satan! I’d rather travel the hardest path of matrimony than follow your footsteps.”
Woodhull was no stranger to such criticism and ignored Nast’s jab, but she found Beecher’s condemnation particularly irksome. You see, Beecher, who wasn’t exactly in the happiest of marriages for reasons separate from what we’re about to discuss, long had rumors swirling around him of having countless affairs and several mistresses throughout his adult life, with the joke being “Beecher preaches to seven or eight of his mistresses every Sunday evening.”
Even the wife of Beecher’s editor and patron, Henry Bowen, would late confess to her husband on her deathbed that she’d once had an affair with Beecher. In another case, Edna Dean Proctor, a woman who helped Beecher write a book on his sermons, would claim Beecher raped her, though Beecher would state that this wasn’t true, and that the encounter in question was consensual. Whatever the case, the pair allegedly continued on in the affair for about a year.
So when Woodhull learned from Elizabeth Cady Stanton that a friend of Beecher’s, Theodore Tilton, had confided in her that Beecher was having a long-standing affair with his wife, Elizabeth Tilton, Woodhull decided to respond to Beecher’s barrage of criticisms sent her way by letting the public know of his extramarital activities in her newspaper.
In the article, Woodhull explicitly stated she was happy for Beecher for his sexual freedom and didn’t judge him in the slightest for his numerous affairs. But what angered her was that he should practice a part of the “free love” she advocated, but then condemn her for promoting the idea that this exact behavior should be legally and socially acceptable for both men and women. As she summed up in her exposé, The Beecher-Tilton Scandal Case, published on November 2, 1872,
I am not charging him with immorality—I applaud his enlightened views. I am charging him with hypocrisy.
This did not work out for her.
Beecher’s many supporters went after her with a vengeance, including self-proclaimed “weeder in God’s garden” Anthony Comstock– of the soon to be enacted Comstock Law fame- having her arrested for sending an “utter obscene publication” through the U.S. mail.
Thus, on the day of voting for the individuals who will in turn actually vote for the president (again, the general public does not vote for the president on Election Day, but for a group of electors, nor is the president elected until much later, contrary to popular belief), Woodhull, Tennessee, and Colonel Blood found themselves sitting in a cell in the Ludlow Street Jail.
While she was in jail, for reasons unclear, her name did not appear on any state ballots and she supposedly received zero popular votes for her electorates. (See: Why Doesn’t the U.S. Use a Popular Vote in Deciding the President) However, this was later proved to be false and it is known that at least some individuals wrote in her name. These votes simply weren’t counted.
As for Beecher, he was soon at the epicenter of one of the most talked about lawsuits of the age, when his former friend, the aforementioned Theodore Tilton, sued him for alienation of affection due to the affair Beecher had with Tilton’s wife. The ultimate result was a hung jury and Tilton, not Beecher, being excommunicated from the Plymouth Church.
In any event, while the vast majority of her contemporaries didn’t agree with Woodhull’s ideas on free love particularly, her arrest was a bit of an outrage to some journalists who in turn railed against what essentially amounted to censorship of the media. One month later, Woodhull would be released from jail and five months after that, she’d be cleared of all charges.
But the damage had been done.
Thanks to her public revelation of Beecher’s hypocrisy, promotion of taboo ideas, and her presidential campaign which was largely panned as her just seeking attention for herself, she’d not only managed to make an enemy of Beecher’s countless supporters nationwide, but also alienated the Women’s Suffragist movement to boot. This was an organization she’d always been something of an outsider in anyway, given many of the other leaders of said organization tended to be upper-middle-class to wealthy, well-educated women, while Woodhull was a formerly impoverished spiritualist and snake-oil salesman with little formal education. Ultimately they turned on her, with Susan B Anthony publicly describing Woodhull and her sister as “lewd and indecent”.
In fact, while Woodhull played a relatively significant role in the early days of said movement, when the history of the women’s suffrage movement, written by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, was published in the 1880s, they saw to it that Woodhull’s contributions were left out of this so-called “comprehensive” history.
Harriet Beecher Stowe likewise, besides directly denouncing Woodhull, calling her an “impudent witch” and a “vile jailbird,” even took shots at her in one of her works, My Wife and I,
“Well,” said I, “why not a woman President, as well as a woman Queen of England?”
“Because,” said he, “look at the difference. The woman Queen in England comes to it quietly; she is born to it, and there is no fuss about it. But whoever is set up to be President of the United States is just set up to have his character torn off from his back in shreds, and to be mauled, pummeled, and covered with dirt by every filthy paper all over the country. And no woman that was not willing to be draggled through every kennel, and slopped into every dirty pail of water, like an old mop, would ever consent to run as a candidate. Why, it’s an ordeal that kills a man…. And what sort of a brazen tramp of a woman would it be that could stand it, and come out of it without being killed? Would it be any kind of a woman that we should want to see at the head of our government? I tell you, it’s quite another thing to be President of a democratic republic, from what it is to be hereditary Queen.”
“Good for you, papa!” said Eva, clapping her hands. “Why how you go on! I never did hear such eloquence. No, Ida, set your mind at rest, you shan’t be run for President of the United States. You are a great deal too good for that.”
Beyond this, in chapter 25 Beecher Stowe vilifies a character known as Miss Audacia Dangereyes (Woodhull reportedly had strikingly blue eyes) who had a paper that advocated “against Christianity, marriage, the family state, and all human laws and standing order.”
(While Beecher Stowe would become an enemy of Woodhull’s over the exposé on Stowe’s brother, Beecher’s other sister, Isabella, was an ardent supporter of Woodhull, including Woodhull’s condemnation of her brother’s hypocrisy concerning his affairs. This later led to widespread rumors that Woodhull had used witchcraft to bewitch Isabella… In the time since, some historians have even speculated Isabella and Woodhull were lovers, but there is no evidence whatsoever to support this notion.)
As for the aftermath of the election, the controversy not only negatively impacted Woodhull’s social life, resulting in her family being continually harassed, but also put a damper on her financial situation. Once relatively wealthy thanks to her business dealings, successful publication, and countless speaking gigs, Woodhull now found herself with limited funds and largely boycotted. (See: Why the Mass Avoidance of Something is Called Boycotting) This included being evicted from her home and having difficulty finding any landlord in Manhattan that would rent to her.
Eventually fed up with it all and the lack of progress in the fight for equal rights, in 1877, shortly after the death of Cornelius Vanderbilt and a few months after divorcing James Blood, Woodhull and Tennessee took their remaining funds, rumor has it along with some amount paid to the sisters by William Vanderbilt in exchange for the pair not publicly revealing anything about his recently deceased father’s private life, and moved to London.
Once there, Woodhull began popularly lecturing as before on equal rights for all and free love. Notably, during one of her presentations on The Human Body, the Temple of God, she drew the attention of a very wealthy banker in one of her audiences, John Biddulph Martin. Six years later, on October 31, 1883, he became her third husband, despite the strong objections of his family. She remained married to him for the rest of his life, with Martin dying eighteen years later in 1901.
Among other activities in her later life, Woodhull briefly returned to the United States to attempt to secure another presidential nomination in both 1884 and 1892, failing both times, though the 1884 instance is notable in that it is the first time two women vied for the presidency (see the Bonus Fact below on Belva Lockwood).
From 1892 to 1901, she published the magazine, The Humanitarian, with the help of her daughter. She also founded a school of agriculture, which quickly failed, and during WWI volunteered with the Red Cross. (See: A Memory of Solferino – The Life of Henry Dunant and the Founding of the Red Cross)
After her third husband’s death in 1901, Woodhull ceased publishing her magazine and retired to a small village in Worcestershire, Bredon’s Norton, where she lived to the ripe old age of 88, dying in 1927.
As for the summation of her life’s work, Woodhull once stated, “While others prayed for the good time coming, I worked for it…”
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- If you’re wondering whatever happened to Woodhull’s sister, Tennessee- who incidentally besides everything already mentioned once ran for Congress, fought for women’s rights to serve in the military and was named a Colonel of a “colored” National Guard Regiment- after her move to London, she married the Viscount of Monserrate, Sir Francis Cook. Within a year of their marriage, Sir Cook would also become an English Baronet by decree of Queen Victoria. The pair would remain married until his death in 1901. Tennessee died in 1923.
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